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Thursday 30 December 2010

Happy New Year!

New Years Eve in France is called Saint-Sylvestre. This name actually has nothing to do with the New Year - it is just the feast day named after a Pope from the 4th Century, which coincidentally is also on 31 December!

Traditionally, New Years Eve is celebrated with a feast around midnight - usually beginning late in the evening and continuing into the early hours of the morning. It is called Le réveillon de la Saint-Sylvestre, which can be translated as ‘the awakening of Saint-Sylvestre’, or ‘the awakening of the New Year’. The feasts includes celebratory foods, such as Champange and foie gras, as well as brioche, pancakes, oysters, chicken, eggs, wine, chocolate, sweets and candied fruit.

Although New Year’s Eve is generally celebrated as a private affair at home, it is also popular to celebrate with balls and parties (“une soirée dansante”). Southwestern France also has its own particular tradition, where locals attend an evening Mass the evening of Saint-Sylvestre. They then march by a torchlight procession into the vineyards, where they celebrate with ‘vin chaud’ (mulled wine) to bring in the New Year.
New Year’s Eve is typically fairly formal in France, and even at family celebrations at home, everyone tends to dress up. So if you want to fit in, make sure you wear something classy!

New Year’s day in France is better known as Jour des Étrennes and it is one of the oldest festivals celebrated in France. New Year’s day in France is typically spent eating with family and friends, with a good deal of wine generally adding to the festive spirit! The French also give gifts on New Years day, and whilst it is seen as a pleasure, it is also taken somewhat seriously. Traditionally, it is considered good luck to give presents at the beginning of the year - much more so than at any other time of the year.
The New Year is not just celebrated on January 1, but actually continues for several days. The New Year holidays in France ends on January 6 with the ceremonial cutting of a special type of festive cake called la galette des rois. A small figurine, “la fève”, is hidden in the cake and the person who finds the trinket in their slice becomes king for the day. Originally, “la fève” was literally a broad bean (fève), but they were replaced from the 1870s by a variety of figurines. A paper crown is included with the cake to crown the "king" who finds the fève in their piece of cake. Traditionally, the cake was divided into as many pieces as there were people, plus one extra slice. This extra slice was called the "share of the poor" was intended to be given out of charity to a poor person. The French President is not allowed to “draw the kings” on Epiphany, as it is bad etiquette. Therefore, at the Elysée Palace, the traditional galette without figurine and crown is served to the President.
On the original calender, the New Year began on March 25. This explains the tradition on the “Poisson d’Avril” (April Fish). It is similar to ‘April Fools’, where people play tricks on each other on the 1st of April. In France, people sent fake gifts around the time of the New Year’s feast. When the reformed calender of 1582 was put into place, the ‘Poisson d’Avril’ tradition moved to January, along with the other New Year celebrations. Today, it is still popular to send fake gifts, chocolate fish and funny cards with pictures of fish.

Monday 29 November 2010

OUVEILLAN - Festival of the Harvest

Ouveillan's 'Fetes des Vendanges' (Festival of the Harvest) is a festival of Wine and Craft. This old tradition continues every October and is one of the highlights of the Languedoc calendar, with its many parades, festivities and markets. These markets range from amateur car boot sales, to flea markets, to professional craftsmen and women offering their hand-crafted wares, folklore and music. The festival has a lovely atmosphere of the old and the new, with old traditions continuing strongly, whilst still welcoming new innovations and skills.

Locals dressing up for a parade

The festival's history is rooted in the traditional festivities of the end-of-harvest season. The end of the harvest was often a busy time, with field workers often working frantically and long hours to get the crop in for the year. Exhausted by their efforts, the workers would celebrate the close of the season, with festivities which evolved into the present-day Fetes des Venanges. The mood was not simply relief that a busy time had now passed, but also to thank each other for the hard work that had been put in, to celebrate the success of the crop and to farewell the end of the agricultural year. A large part of their festivities was to put on a big feast of cassoulet, poultry, mutton and plenty of wine. The atmosphere was boisterous and everyone sang loud drinking songs, accompanied by the rhythmic banging of tables and stamping of feet. Today, the festival has grown to encompass more than a big dinner - but the cheerful spirit is still very much a part of the Fetes des Vendanges.

Yum, Cassoulet!

Wine Barrel at the festival

Ouveillan is a short distance from Narbonne and Beziers. This charming town began as a 'retirement village' for romans looking to spend their final days pottering around the garden, tending grape vines and drinking good wine. The town may have become a little more lively since then, with people of all ages now inhabiting the town - however the focus on wine hasn't changed. In this town of one butcher, a couple of bakeries and food stores, two doctors and dentist - we also find several wineries. Keeping the villagers thirst at bay seems to be much more of a priority than looking after their teeth! Even if you miss the festival, Ouveillan is still worth a visit - it has markets several times a week, roman ruins and - as mentioned above - several wineries!

For Beautiful Villas in the Languedoc visit our website www.southfrancevillas.com
Contributions by Katarina Byrne

Saturday 30 October 2010

UZES - Throughout the ages

Uzes has a history of being a tolerant and open community. In the Middle Ages, civilised Uzes was a stark contrast to Northern France, which was ruled by the Franks. In the Christian World during the Middle Ages, Jews generally lived outside the feudal system and their rights were very limited. Although the Languedoc wasn’t a Utopia, it was much more tolerant towards the Jewish population than other areas in Europe. For example, at Easter, there was a popular christian tradition called “Strike the Jew”, however this was outlawed in the Languedoc. Jews began to settle in Uzes from the 5th century and the bishop of Uzes invited them to dinners and became friends with many Jewish people. Although he did dedicate quite a bit of energy to convincing Jews in Uzes to convert to Christianity, it was not an aggressive pursuit. Unfortunately, his friendliness was noticed and reported to King Childebert I, who was not quite as tolerant. The Bishop was ordered to compel the Jews in his community to convert - and if they refused, they were to be expelled from the town altogether. After his death, many Jews that had been baptised decided to return to Judaism.

By the 13th century, Uzes became known for its community of wise Jewish scholars, and also housed a community of Cathars, a gnostic religious sect. It also was known for being one of the largest Protestant cities in France - a somewhat dangerous position in a strongly catholic country. During the religious wars of the Reformation in the 16th century, the city suffered for its religious stan
ce, and all its churches were destroyed. So Uzes has had a history of open-mindedness, generally making its own decisions and not simply following popular trend.

Uzes also happens to be the first Duchy of France. That is, the Dukes of Uzes are the most important Dukes in the country, and rank after the the title of Prince. (In other words, the Duke of Uzès would theoretically be first in line for the French throne after the royal family itself. That is, if France was still a kingdom!) In the past, it was part of the job of the Duke of Uzès to defend the honour of the Queen Mother. Over the centuries, the dukes of Uzes have well and truly proved their loyalty, with twenty-one dukes having been wounded or killed in the name of their country.

When the French Revolution came, the Ducal family went into exile - being close to the Royal family, they weren’t too popular during this time. However, the family got some of their property back under the Restoration and the family still owns the colourful chateau in the middle of the town -- this chateau has remained the residence of the family for over a thousand years.
Uzes really came into its own in the 16th century, when it established itself as a major player in the textile industry. The town produced silk, stockings and woollen cloth with over 2,000 people being employed in textile factories in Uzes. The affluence of the town suffered with the introduction of the railway, however - suddenly the town had to compete with far away markets, which had a more competitive edge and sold their goods more cheaply. Uzes couldn’t compete against this new influx of goods, and so business began to decline. With money suddenly not being so abundant, fewer houses were built, so the effect is that Uzes is frozen in time, with more of the Medieval architecture having been preserved. When the town became more prosperous around the 19th century, building boomed again - so we have this architectural contrast in Uzes, between the older medieval styles and the newer, grandiose 19th century styles.

Uzes also hosts the biggest Truffle market in the Languedoc. (For more about Truffles, please see this previous blog entry.) It’s a good town for shopping and food, with some great markets and boutique stores.
For more information and other beautiful luxury viilas, please visit our website!
Contributions by Katarina Byrne

Tuesday 14 September 2010

Truffle hunting!

Truffles are expensive, exclusive, elusive and delicious -- and the French LOVE them for these reasons.

Going to a truffle market is not only an interesting glimpse into french culture, it also gives you the chance to buy truffles straight from the forest and take them home to cook up a gourmet meal in your holiday apartment or villa. It will bring everyone into the kitchen the moment you start slicing it, releasing its wonderful pungent odour. You don't need to be intimidated at the idea of cooking this delicacy - try a truffle omelette, mix slices through a fettucine dish, or simply eat raw, sliced thinly on buttered bread. Having a kitchen to come home to while on holidays is a fantastic way to travel. You really get into the culture so much more thoroughly if you take advantage of the local produce and recipes during your holiday.

Richerenches is the largest truffle market in the country. Most of the truffle selling doesn't go on in the main street, however - you will need to explore the streets of the town a little to stumble upon the major selling areas. There is something a little covert about truffles which the french delight in - it is a cash-only trade, and while it is not illegal, there can be an air of the illicit in these exchanges.

Known as the 'diamond of the kitchen', truffles are very expensive and considered a luxury item. They have a strong, pungent flavour and are usually used sparingly, in paper-thin slices. Older French books often use great quantities of truffles in recipes, as harvests were much larger in the past. In the 19th century, an annual harvest averaged at around 1000 tonnes, while today's production is around 40 tonnes. This is due to climate change and many truffle oaks being destroyed during the World Wars. Their rarity has lead to high prices, with this fungus now fetching a price of around 800 euros per kilo.

Growing truffles is a huge investment of time. In the wild, it takes an Oak tree 40 years to get to the point where it has the potential to grow truffles. However, with special techniques, it is now possible these days to manipulate young oak trees into truffle-maturity in only 10 years. The cultivation of this fungus is so precarious, however, that a slightly dry winter can wreak havoc on a crop. Few farmers are willing to put all their energy into truffle farming alone - it's too risky.

To add another complication to the mix, farmers also have to ward off thieves. Truffle poachers have become an enormous hazard for truffle farms. Poachers with specially trained dogs can steal thousands of euros worth of the fungus in a night. Farmers must go to great lengths to protect their orchards, with hired guards and dogs being the norm.

If you're not game to try cooking them yourself, truffles can be found on the menus of high class restaurants. One such restaurant is the 'Mas de Saint Antoine', which is located in Grasse. This restaurant not only uses truffles in its dishes, but also hosts an annual truffle market of its own.

Truffle season runs through winter, from November to March.
One of the main truffle regions in France is Provence, and the main market towns in Provence are Apt, Aups, Carpentras, Richerence, and Valréas. In the the Languedoc, Uzes hosts the principal truffle market.

Where to stay?

We're huge fans of a great little town called Carpentras - it is quite close to all the major Truffle markets so it is perfect as a home-base for truffle hunting excursions! We can recommend a beautiful villa called VU003a Parc de la Masque. This spacious villa is set within 3 acres of woodland, with Mediterranean pines, olive trees and oaks offering privacy and calm to be disturbed only by cicadas. There's plenty of fun to be had as it boasts great facilities - including a fenced swimming pool, private tennis court, library, piano, petanque/boules, board games, and more. It also features a fully-equipped kitchen which is essential for cooking those fresh truffles you'll score at the markets! The villa accommodations 10-11 people, with plenty of room for everyone.

For more information, click here! Or if you have any questions, please don't hesitate to contact us via our website www.southfrancevillas.com

Happy Truffle hunting!

Contributions by Katarina Byrne

Monday 16 August 2010

Literary Destinations


Southern France has attracted creative people for centuries. They found themselves there for various reasons yet all were influenced by the beauty of this spectacular part of the world. Whether they were native to the region, the foreign wealthy elite attracted to the glamour of the Cote d’Azur, ailing artists advised to relocate to the Mediterranean for health reasons, those in search of a new landscape for inspiration or running from home to a new way of life in a new culture.

Travellers to Southern France can follow in the footsteps of celebrated writers, experiencing the same landscapes and towns that they wrote about, that inspired them, or where they lived while creating their famous works.

Here are a few of our favourites:

17th Century Classics Alexandre Dumas - the Count of Monte Cristo

The Chateau d’If, near Marseilles, was used as the backdrop for Dumas’ novel The Count of Monte Cristo. The Chateau was originally built as a fortress to defend Marseilles from attack. Later, it was turned into a prison due to its isolation and the dangerous waters which surround it - much like Alcatraz in the USA. It became known as one of the most notorious prisons in the country. When Dumas decided to use it as the setting for his book, it became internationally famous. It has been a popular tourist attraction since it was opened to the public in 1890.

In Dumas’ book, the main characters are imprisoned in the Chateau - one of whom manages to escape after 14 years. However, in real life no prisoner ever escaped from this fortress.

Victor Hugo - Les Miserables

Whether you appreciate the literary merits of this epic, or simply are an avid fan of Andrew Lloyd Weber, you can’t miss out on visiting the little town which acts as the backdrop for the first chapters of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. Digne-les-Bains is a beautiful town surrounded by forested mountains between Provence and the Alps. It is well known for its hot thermal springs. It and a lavender festival. It also happens to be one of the principle lavender regions of France, and it hosts a great Lavender Festival each year.

Modern Classics F Scott Fitzgerald - Tender is the Night

This novel which celebrates the jazz age was itself written in a famous Jazz town, Juan-les-Pins. The annual summer jazz festival here is well known and has staged many famous Jazz musicians. Juan-les-pins is also a sister city to that giant of jazz towns: New Orleans.

Tender is the Night has a special beauty about it - perhaps partly influenced by the spectacular beauty of Juan-les-Pins.

The town is situated between Nice and Cannes, featuring a casino, nightclubs and beaches. It has become a major holiday destination popular with the international jet-set.

Ernest Hemingway - The Garden of Eden

Hemingway begins his novel with a honeymoon in the Camargue - a beautiful region teeming with wildlife. 

The book continues with the French Riviera and Cote d’Azur as its backdrop, as it explores the intricacies of intimacy, gender and identity. The novel is also an exploration of the artist, and Hemingway paints an interesting portrait.

Popular novels Patrick Suskind - Perfume

Suskind’s novel is a story of scent and murder. It explores identity, morality and the emotional meanings that can be attached to our sense of smell.

The novel is very aptly set in the town of Grasse which is famous for its perfume. The perfume industry began here almost as an accident - a side project to a prosperous textile industry - and now it is known as the perfume capital of the world.

Let yourself be seduced by the scents and smells in this pretty town - try the many different perfumes on offer and decide which best represents your own identity!

Peter Mayle - A Year in Provence

In the late 1980’s, a British author moved to the small town of Menerbes and decided to write a book about a year in his life in this picturesque town. His book became an international success and word of Menerbes beauty spread with the book's popularity. Today, it can be a little overcrowded in peak season, but it would take more than that to take away from the town - perched precariously on a hillside, it is both stunning from a distance and also from within the town itself. The view of the valleys, hills and vineyards is definitely worth the journey.

Where to stay?

We have beautiful luxury villas close to all these locations - please see our website for a full selection of stunning holiday homes.

One in particular that we love is the AM015A Golfe Juan-Les-Pins, located in Juan-les-pins, where 'Tender is the night' was written. This enormous villa can house up to 13 people in 7 ensuite bedrooms. It is positioned in an exclusive position with incredible sea views.

Contributions by Katarina Byrne

Thursday 29 July 2010

Our favourite beaches

Some of the best beaches in the world can be found in Southern France - here are a few of our favourites!
Villefranche-sur-mer - just down the road from Cannes and Nice. This is a stunning beach yet it remains largely undiscovered by the masses. The quality of the sand is better than in Nice, plus it’s much less crowded. Yet it is close enough that it is easy to hop on a train and be in Nice in 5 minutes for shopping and sightseeing. The town itself though is interesting in its own right - it is a medieval town with some great architecture and interesting sights.

Eze-sur-Mer - The beach is so good here that Bono from U2 bought a house here right on the beachfront. The town above the beach, Eze, is a medieval town perched upon a cliff. It is famous for its Perfume industry, and is called the world’s fragrance capital. If you’d like to know more about Eze, you can read about it in a previous entry here.
Sete - this is a fishing village with a port, canals AND a beach: it’s got everything! This is a fantastic destination for watersport enthusiasts, as you can indulge in pretty much every watersport under the sun. You can read more about it here.

Argeles - this beach has a reputation for being one of the best beaches in the entire country. The north part is probably the best section. Like many beaches in this region, it is huge. It has fine sand and is bordered by a great park with an abundance of shady trees and beautiful flowers. The one thing that really makes it stand out, however, is the incredible view of the Pyrenees - what a backdrop!

and Serignan - these two neighbouring beaches have a wild and remote air to them, even though they are conveniently close to civilisation and tasty restaurants. The tall, grassy banks which border the beach create a feeling of seclusion from the outside world. At Serignan, you can entertain the kids with pony rides too.

Cape d’Agde - is a naturist mecca. This coastal town features a nudist resort with a three-mile beach. You can shop at the bakery, go to the doctor, eat at a fancy restaurant - all without a scrap of clothing. If you’re the type who prefers to be dressed, you can still visit this town without having to dis-robe. Only one part of the town is naturist, and within the naturist section, the only place you’re really obliged to throw off all your clothes is the nudist beach.Valras-plage - really good for kitesurfing and windsurfing.

St Jean de Luz
- this beach is in Basque country and is the last town before you hit Spain. It's cute and small, good for year-round surfing.
Where to stay?
As always, we have some suggestions for great holiday homes in the area. We can recommend the following luxury villas for your French beach holiday:

HE004A Villa Fabienne
- Valras Plage
This villa is situated in the family resort beach of Valras plage, but at the 'quiet end' away from the Marina and the restaurants which are within a 15 minute walk. These sea front properties with gates leading out on to the sandy beach were built in the 60's - low rise with small gardens (or in this unique case - a swimming pool) overlooking the sea.

AM006A Villa Eze
- Eze Sur Mer
This charming villa is located in a quiet residential area below Eze Village, on the Cote d'Azur, one of the most scenic stretches of coast on the French Riviera, between Nice and Monte Carlo. The villa is situated in the hills above the sea, facing south with a 180º view of the Mediterranean and surrounding coastal cliffs, a superb infinity swimming pool, plus only a three-minute walk to the beach.

HE063A Villa Setoise - Sete This is a Stunning spacious state-of-the-art sea-front villa with private infinity pool and sea views. Only 5 minutes from colourful port of Sete.

Contributions by Katarina Byrne

Tuesday 29 June 2010

History and Art in Arles - Van Gogh, International Photography Festival & Roman Architecture

Arles is a great destination for art-lovers. Vincent Van Gogh was famously a resident in Arles. He may have only spent about a year in the town, but it had a profound effect on him. 

 During his time here, he produced over 300 paintings and drawings - and it was here that he established the distinct post-impressionist style for which he is known. What was it about Arles that attracted Van Gogh? He loved the local landscape and the people who lived there and the vibrant colours produced by the bright Provencal sunlight.

You can visit many sites around Arles which actually inspired Van Gogh. There are 10 easels placed at the same vantage point of his original works. You can get a map at the Tourist Information office showing you where each easel is located -- or you could turn it into a bit of a scavenger hunt and try to find all 12 on your own!

You can also visit the Cafe which he frequented. It may be slightly over-priced, but it's worth it to grab a coffee and bask in the atmosphere which drew Van Gogh to the establishment.

There's more to Art in Arles than the legacy of Van Gogh, however! 

The city is also famous for a fantastic international Photography Festival which has run every summer since 1971. The Festival is opening this weekend (Saturday, July 3rd, 2010) and running until mid-September. You can find out more at this website (available in English - click the British Flag at the top of the main page). There are also several museums which are worth a visit. The Arles Folk Museum is particularly interesting, providing an insight into the tradiitons and culture of the region.

As well as being a cultural centre, Arles is also an important historical city. The Roman architecture is beautiful and many of them have now been World Heritage Listed. In many cases these remains have been well preserved. In fact, even after 2,000 years, the amphitheatre is still in use today! During the summer months it hosts bullfights, and it is open for tours all year. The bullfights are definitely a must-see. They often have Provençal-style bullfights at the arena -- those who are uneasy at the idea of a bullfight might prefer this style. In the Provençal-style, the bull isn't killed. Rather, a team of athletic men attempt to remove a tassle from the bull's horn without getting injured.

A nice day trip from Arles would be to visit the Camargue. You can read more about this enchanting region in one of our earlier blog posts.

For a range of beautiful, charming and luxurious villas near to Arles and elsewhere in the south of France visit our website www.southfrancevillas.com

Monday 14 June 2010

NIMES - The Old and the New

Home to the greatest wealth of ancient buildings in France, travellers have long flocked to this historic city. Nimes was established as a Roman colony around 28 BC and became one of the most important towns in France, positioned on the route between Italy and Spain. Its prosperity during this period can be witnessed by the many remains of many Roman buildings which can still be visited today. One of the most impressive of the Roman buildings is the elliptical Roman amphitheatre, which looks just like the one in Rome. It was built sometime around the 1st century AD and it is the most well-preserved Roman arena in the country. Back in the days of the Romans, the amphitheatre seated 20,000 blood-thirsty spectators for gladiatorial combats. It is still in use today as an arena for bull fighting and concerts. The UNESCO World Heritage listed 'Pont du Gard' is also a highlight. The bridge has three levels with an aqueduct on the top level. Incredibly, the precise construction of the bridge eliminated the need for the use of mortar at all. The stones were cut to fit together perfectly, despite the fact that some of them weighed up to 6 tons! And you can't miss the Maison Carrée (AKA 'Square House'), which is the best-preserved Roman temple anywhere in the world.

Yet it's not all ruins and Romans. Whilst preserving its historic splendour, Nimes has become a vibrant and modern city. Friendly competition between nearby Montpellier has sparked a wealth of innovation in Nimes. It hopes to be recognised the most dynamic and energetic city in the Languedoc. By enlisting architects such as Jean Nouvel and Philippe Starck, Nimes is well on its way to overtaking Montpellier!

If you get an overdose of visiting the monuments and ruins, wandering the streets of the old town in a pleasant pursuit in itself. Stop and have a leisurely coffee at one of the many cafes during your explorations. With 300 days of sunshine, take a seat outside the cafe to bask in the warm sun and people-watch as the pedestrians pass by. The Jardins de la Fontaine ('Gardens of the Fountain') is lovely, too. It is built around the Roman thermal ruins and features fountains, trees, grottoes and a lovely view from the Roman tower. Nimes also has many museums, which you could peruse in the unlikely event of rain!

Apart from the Roman ruins, Nimes also has another large claim to fame - it is the home of Denim! Get it - Denim... De Nimes? The fabric was originally named 'Serge de Nimes', and at some point the 'Serge' was dropped and the name became Anglicised into today's word, 'Denim'. During the 1849 Californian gold rush, Levi Strauss was engaged in the profitable business of manufacturing trousers for miners. In search of a sturdy fabric which would withstand the tough conditions in the mines, he stumbled upon 'Serge de Nimes'. He began to import it and it became incredibly popular - as I'm sure you're aware of!


Looking for a nice place to stay near to Nimes? Consider a beautiful villa for your holiday in Southern France!

GR009A Mas Sevenne
Sleeps 8-10
A very spacious hill top village house in the foothills of the Cevennes, near St Hippolyte du Fort, in the Gard. Large private garden with swimming pool. A blend of old stone and contemporary. All rooms and terraces have stunning views.
GR008A Villa Nadege

GR008A Villa Nadege
Sleeps 12.

Villa Nadege is an exceptional and quite luxurious country house which has been finished and decorated to an extremely high standard with a large attractive garden, a huge summer kitchen, and a private heated pool measuring 12mx6m.

It is situated on a hill in a picturesque Mediterranean village, in an area of great natural beauty with great views; an intimate landscape of small hills with limestone scarps and 
hardy Garrigue woodland.

GR010A Domaine Fontaine du Mas

GR010A Domaine Fontaine du Mas
A huge stone-built farm in the Cevennes foothills close to Uzes, sleeping up to 30. Private park with tennis court and pool. This large villa in the Languedoc is ideal for large groups as well as weddings, seminars, family reunions and celebrations.

For more of out properties check out our website www.southfrancevillas.com.

Contributions by Katarina Byrne

Sunday 16 May 2010

THE CATHAR ROUTE - Castles in the Sky

Ready yourself to delve into some history and hiking! This entry will explore the Cathar Castles, in particular a couple of lofty ruins which have been named the Languedoc's 'Castles in the Sky'.
History of the Cathars

The Cathars were ascetic types - they didn't eat meat, eschewed alcohol, and avoided material possessions. The idea was that by doing this they could escape the corruption of the world. Whether they were successful or not in their endeavour, the Catholic Church took exception to differences in their religious doctrine, and in 1208, they launched a Crusade on the Cathar Church. (The fact that the Cathar nobles in Languedoc also owned very valuable land may have also been part of the motivation..!)

The inner circle of Cathar leaders, (named 'Bonshommes', or 'good men') fled the Crusaders by a route now known as the 'Chemin des Bonshommes'. It was an arduous journey of 220 kilometres, from the Medieval town of Foix, over the Pyrenees and to the relative safety of Spain. On the way to Spain, they stopped at Cathar castles for shelter. These Cathar castles were soon set upon by the Crusaders. Whilst the fortifications and geographical advantages of the sites held strong against the invaders, supplies eventually ran out and they were forced to surrender.

The sieges and massacres that occurred during these Crusades were vicious and bloody -- many atrocities were committed. Today we see the destruction and devastation of this group of people through the crumbling, stark, lonely ruins which still stand in the Languedoc region.

Cathar Hiking Routes

The routes which the Cathars used to flee from the invading Crusaders are today a destination for travellers with a taste for re-tracing history and those who simply enjoy wandering through gorgeous wilderness.

The hiking routes mostly centre around the atmospheric ruins of Cathar castles - picturesque and haunting, these majestic ruins sit starkly on the summits of rocky mountains. Their position was chosen for strategic military reasons and today we can enjoy these vantage points for their incredible views of the surrounding land.

There are many sections of the Cathar route which you can explore: the entire 'Chemin des Bonshommes' route takes around twelve days to complete on foot! But if you're looking for something a little more relaxed than a 12 day hike, we suggest renting a villa in the area and exploring sections of the route at your leisure.

At South France Villas, we are fans in particular of the walks around Quéribus and Peyrepertuse.

Peyrepertuse (meaning 'Pierced Rock')is a ruined fortress, perched at a lofty 800m in the Pyrenees. Peyrepertuse clings to a narrow, rocky ridge 70 metres wide and 300 metres long. Its precarious position makes you wonder at how such an architectural feat was possible back in the Middle Ages. How did they manage to haul building materials and construct the Castle all the way up there? It's enough of a hike as a tourist carrying only a digital camera and a bottle of water! But the exertion to reach the summit is definitely well worth the effort. Not to mention that the scenery on the way to castle is delightful in itself -- it is a winding route with lovely trees, rocks and wild flowers greeting you around every twist and turn.

Nearby, you'll find the smaller castle at Queribus. It is a shorter walk than the climb to Peyrepertuse, but steeper. The views are less dramatic here, but it makes up for this with the interior of its castle which is the more interesting and well-maintained of the two.

You need good walking shoes for both these walks, but you don't need to be an Olympian to attempt them. In fact, if you take it slow and steady, you don't really need to be very fit at all!
For more walks in this region, there are several good books which provide extensive information. For example, this one from amazon.com.
Another must-see in the region is the city of Carcassone -- you can read all about it in an earlier blog entry here.

Villas in the area

We can recommend a set of three beautiful holiday villas owned by a couple in the village of Cascastel, with lovely rural views over the surrounding vineyards. They are separate accommodations and are generally rented individually, however large groups can rent two or even all three of these luxury villas.

The owners run an organic 12 hectare wine domaine from a wine 'cave' next door - so no need to travel far for a wine tasting! The villas are typically French, built in the early 20th century - although since then the owners have renovated them to include modern conveniences, such as ensuite bathrooms.

AU010A Maison Guilhem 10-14 people
AU012A Maison des Vendangeurs 10-12 people
AU014A L'Estiu 4 people

If you don't want to spend all your time hiking, there are plenty of other things to do in the region also. Nearby to Cascastel you can find beaches, canoe hire, bike hire, golf, horse riding, hang gliding, boules, vineyards, a African Safari park and more! Also there are some great historic towns to discover, such as Narbonne, Carcassone, Beziers and Montpellier.

We hope we've inspired you to discover this wonderful part of South France - if you have any enquiries please VISIT OUR WEBSITE  www.southfrancevillas.com. We'd be more than happy to help!

Contributions by Katarina Byrne